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COMPULSION (director: Richard Fleischer; screenwriters: from the book Compulsion by Meyer Levin/Richard Murphy; cinematographer: William Mellor; editor: William H. Reynolds; music: Lionel Newman; cast: Orson Welles (Jonathan Wilk), Dean Stockwell (Judd Steiner), Bradford Dillman (Artie Straus), Diane Varsi (Ruth Evans), E.G. Marshall (D.A. Horn), Martin Milner (Sid Brooks), Richard Anderson (Max Steiner), Robert Simon (Lt. Johnson), Edward Binns (Tom Daly); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Richard D. Zanuck; 20th Century Fox; 1959)
“Richard Fleischer’s thriller is loosely based on the celebrated 1924 Chicago murder trial of Jewish thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Richard Fleischer’s thriller is loosely based on the celebrated 1924 Chicago murder trial of Jewish thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb, two brilliant homosexual graduate law students who kidnapped and murdered a young boy to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. Writer Richard Murphy based it on the 1956 bestselling book Compulsion by Meyer Levin. It was also made into a hit play. Levin was the classmate of the millionaire killers, and his part of a cub reporter is played by Martin Milner using the name Sid Brooks. In fact, all the names of the lead characters are changed. Orson Welles livens things up with a showy performance as he makes a cameo court appearance under the name of Wilk; his character is based on the great lawyer Clarence Darrow who was retained by the boys’ families for a supposed fee of a million dollars. The film was released around the time Leopold was paroled after serving a little over 30 years, and because of that garnered some fresh interest.

Unfortunately, it was a flat depiction of the notorious case despite the fine acting by Stockwell and Dillman as the arrogant and unsympathetic killers and Welles’ hokey spellbinding one delivering a two-day summation argument for leniency for reasons of insanity. Stockwell’s character was portrayed as a submissive type, while Dillman was the bully with the big ideas. Both characters believed because of their mental superiority (both attended college when they were 14) they were above the law, quoting from Nietzsche to prove their point.

It seems like a pale version of Levin’s more involving novel. It is one of three movies based on the Leopold-Loeb case–the others are Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”